Terrible things happened to the creative sector during the pandemic including temporary closures and mass layoffs as funding was cut.

New research from actors’ union, Equity and the University of Warwick based on responses from 674 of the union’s members may represent the most depressing news that most of us have read in the last couple of years.

The conclusion is stark showing “serious flaws in Universal Credit, the government’s flagship Social Security reform, pushing workers across the cultural and creative industries into deep financial hardship.”

Of the most strongly affected creative workers on Universal Credit:

  • 41% had gone without essential items such as food or utilities.
  • Nearly half have been unable to pay the bills.
  • 5% had been forced to leave their home.

Some have been reduced to couch surfing, living in their cars and relying on food banks for sustenance.

The obvious conclusion is that something has to change. Either the creative sector must be better funded or individuals should cut their losses and look for better-paid work.

The latter should not be too difficult, since the average earnings in the cultural and creative industries currently stand at £15,270 after expenses but before tax. In case that might seem like a low but acceptable amount, this represents under half of the median pay for UK full-time employees. Even worse, 94% of those in the sector who responded were earning less than the median wage of £33,280.

Some might wonder whether this is merely a reflection of the intellectual and educational abilities of actors, creatives and technicians. As anyone who has rubbed shoulders with them knows, this is far from the truth. It is highly likely that the proportion of Oxbridge educated graduates working in and around theatres beats the national average for most employment sectors, while there will be very few who struggle to communicate in English or have difficulties with basic literacy.

In other words, these are people who deserve to be earning equivalent amounts to accountants, lawyers or bankers and, dare one suggest it, politicians.

Where did it all go wrong? Why are those in the theatre industry undervalued to such a great degree? In part, this is voluntary, since jobs in our sector can be addictive, meaning that people are willing to work ludicrous hours for little more than national living wage.

In many cases, financial logic would suggest that creative staff should forget about artistic ambitions and take a job in an Amazon warehouse. More realistically for many, there are shortages in many professional services organisations, meaning that taking a few years out and retraining might increase income 5- or 10-fold.

Given all of these factors, the theatre could be under threat of further contraction, if not, extinction. As actor Julie Hesmondhalgh has commented in response to the research, “it’s very difficult to talk now about barriers to access to the arts because actually for me those were very few at the time, because the system was incredibly supportive of people like me from working class families in the regions. My parents both worked, they were blue collar workers, and I not only got a full local authority grant to go to drama school, I also got my accommodation paid for as well, which is unbelievable. So that in itself lifted all barriers.”

To add to the problems, producers are cutting the number of workers required by reducing cast sizes and generating fewer productions. Stage work will also come under increasing threat from TV, film or even the corporate video and training sector, where the pay is often far higher and prospects for continuous work are likely to be better.